Columns » Livelong Days

Landscape and light

Susan Moldenhauer at Phototroph Gallery



A typical southeastern Wyoming landscape may seem anything but inspiring. The lack of dramatic depth or contour in its sparse hills and endless highways might yield little more than a yawn or two from a traveler just passing through ... That is, unless you're seeing that landscape cast through the lens of photographer Susan Moldenhauer, whose show, New Landscapes, will be opening at Phototroph Gallery on Friday, Aug. 1.

A native of Chicago with a background in drawing and printmaking, Moldenhauer has lived in Wyoming since 1991 when she took a position as curator of museum programs at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, and where she is now director and chief curator. She says it was an interest in photographing landscapes in the American West that spurred her move to the Equality State.

Drawn to the West, its mythic histories, petroglyphs and sprawling epic landscapes, Moldenhauer was determined to create new ways of seeing it and used a favorite technique of flying fabric in front of her camera to manipulate her landscape shots without having to resort to darkroom alchemy.

When you see her images, however, it's hard to believe the ethereal and ghostly figures that haunt her frames weren't created by happy chemical accidents or dabbling in abstraction during processing.

The prints are untouched, however, and the aurora borealis-like figures are created using this technique that involves silk fabrics as kinds of windblown filters.

"There is no manipulation of any kind other than what Mother Nature let happen," said Elaine Bean, owner of Phototroph Gallery.

Adding to the conceptual nature of the shots, the silks are also imprinted with various "museum masterpieces" such as Mary Cassatt's "On the Balcony During Carnival." Once she has prepared the shot, Moldenhauer holds the silk out in front of the camera and patiently waits to capture what she describes as the "one moment of time when the elements of fabric, wind, landscape and light coalesce."

"Certainly the wide-open and empty space of Wyoming is extraordinary and it is hard to think about how a small photograph might begin to convey the experience of being out in it," said Moldenhauer. "My photographs are made in these kinds of spaces yet become a different kind of experience or inquiry through the 'theater' of letting the wind become visible through the presence of the fabric and letting the light transform the fabric from translucent to opaque. The poetry of the images comes when one defines or becomes the other."

The result is astonishing. In one piece, an unearthly blur of red and gold sprouts out of the center of the horizon like an extraterrestrial flower. In another, phantom figures holding what could be parasols float in a cloudy blue sky above a sea of dusty red arroyos. One gets a sense that these pieces of cloth are not obscuring our view of the landscape, but rather creating a canvas on which that landscape is spectacularly transposed -- a much-needed new way of seeing the clichd visions of the West.

New Landscapes will be the first exhibit of Susan Moldenhauer's work to appear in a gallery in Colorado Springs.

-- Tamara Matthews

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